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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part I: Chapter 6


Early Inhabitants—Picts—Scandinavian Race—Authorities cited —Influence of Scotch and Continental Peoples on Race— Difference of Race in different. Islands—Modification of Races by climate, habits, &c.

THE doctrine that Europe was, previously to the immigration thither of the Celts, inhabited by a Turanian race, now represented by the Lapps and Finns of northern Europe, and the Basques of the Pyrenees, seems to be fast gaining ground amongst our best ethnologists. But as it is doubtful whether they inhabited North Britain, and still more so whether they reached the distant Shetlands, we need not take them into consideration, at all events as influencing the existing race in these islands. According to an old Shetland tradition, the early Pictish inhabitants were exterminated by their Norse -successors, one after another, till only two remained, a father and son, who dwelt in one of the castles or broughs in the west part of the country, .and who were also put to death, the reason of their execution being that they refused to tell their Scandinavian conquerors the process by which they brewed ale from heather. That the Norsemen suppressed and supplanted the Picts is undoubted, but that they utterly annihilated them has long appeared to me extremely unlikely. In no instance, as far as I can learn, do we find a conquering race, however savage and bloodthirsty, completely sweeping from the face of the earth that which preceded it. The vanquished have frequently been put to the sword in large numbers, and generally driven to the mountains, or reduced to slavery, but never exterminated by the victors. In applying to literature for aid, I am glad to find this opinion maintained by such able ethnologists as Dr Bernard Davis and Dr Beddoe. Dr Davis says . . . “A thorough and long-continued intercourse with Norway may well be regarded as having materially weakened and diminished the aboriginal and Pictish element of the. population.” He says, “The races were known to intermarry but very rarely.” Dr Beddoe remarks, “If the Orcadians and Zetlanders be not quite so fair as might beseem pure Scandinavians, something may be allowed, perhaps, for the Ugrian thralls of the early colonists, or the relics of a primitive Pictish population.”

The old Celtic race, thus to a certain extent perpetuated, is still to be recognised in the features of many of the peasantry, and we are greatly aided in accounting for these Celtic features when we reject the doctrines contained in the above-mentioned tradition. But despite the influence of the aboriginal element, and the immigration during the last 300 years of settlers from Scotland and elsewhere, the great bulk of the Shetland people are, and have been for the last thousand years, Scandinavians. So much do they resemble their continental kinsmen that an acute observer, the late Dr G. W. Spence, said, “It was difficult to distinguish some Shetlanders, by the eye, from Norwegians, and till they spoke he could not tell which they were.”

Before proceeding further with the ethnological peculiarities of the Shetlanders, it were well to give a general description of the race to which they belong, and perhaps this could not be better done than *by quoting the words of Captain Frederick Thomas, R.N., a gentleman who has made good use of his opportunities of observing the British Scandinavians in Orkney, Shetland, and the Hebrides. The gallant captain thus •enumerates the leading characteristics of the Norse race—“Rather above the average height and weight, bony, muscular, and not given to obesity, nose long,' straight, and well projected; chin broad and bulky, but not heavy; face rather broad, but not flat; eyebrows somewhat arched; forehead broad and square, not very high; head not small, good breadth between the parallel protuberances, plenty of back head, flattish on the top; hair, abundant, straight, and light or fair in colour ; hands large, and well made, neither dumpy nor gracile; feet also large but not clumsy; skin also fair, but not of a very clear fairness; expression matter of fact, practical, and self-possessed; deliberate character, courageous, and steady.” -Dr Arthur Mitchell, one of the Commissioners on Lunacy, observed five hundred and thirty-one Shetlanders as to their hair and eyes, and got the following percentage:—

Light eyes, ....... 82.8
Intermediate eyes......11.35
Dark eyes, . . . . . . 5.85

Fair hair with light eyes was present in four hundred and five, or 76.4 per cent., of them, whilst the combination called the Celtic eye was wholly absent. The average height of seventy-nine Shetlanders was 5 feet 7.9 inches, or without shoes 5 feet 7 inches; and the average weight of the same number 167.7 lbs., or 12 stones,2 which fully justifies the remark of Captain Thomas, that the race to which they belong is above the average height and weight.

Speaking of the Shetlanders, Dr Beddoe further says, “Still ” (i.e., notwithstanding the influx of the Scotch), “however, they must be mainly a Scandinavian people, and, accordingly, I did find them, though not universally xanthous as they are reported, a much fairer people than the western Scotch.” Again, at page 23, he expresses the opinion, which, by a remarkable coincidence, appears to be formed by most ethnological observers visiting the islands — “The Shetlanders come nearer to the English than to the Scotch in figure and features, and even in the colour of their hair, which is rarely either black *or violently red, and most commonly of a brownish yellow.” The features and expression of countenance of this people could not be better described than in the words of an accomplished Shetland clergyman, the late Rev. John Bryden of Sandsting, who says—“They are of middle stature and well proportioned, having brown or yellow hair; their features are rather small than otherwise, and without that harshness which is characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon descent.”2 In reference more particularly to the countenance, the description of the Rev. William Miller, applied to the Scandinavian race in a general way, may here be given :—“ The face is broad and open, forehead more remarkable for breadth than height, and complexion fair and often ruddy, never dark and sallow, like the Celtic. But, perhaps, the most notable feature in their physiognomy is what I would term the mobility of the countenance. The Celtic character flashes out from the dark and deep-set eye, while the light blue or grey eye of the Scandinavian is comparatively unexpressive. But this is compensated by the exceeding expressiveness of the mouth and chin. The whole lower part of the face has often, indeed, the appearance as if its very bones were flexible, so easily can the observant and practised eye read in it the signs of each thought or emotion as it passes through the mind.”1 Regarding two Shetland skulls which I recently presented to him, Dr Mitchell writes me in the following terms:—“One of the skulls is an excellent specimen of Dolichocephalism, and the other as good a specimen of Brachycephalism. In the last the whole of the cerebral portion of the occiput is a separate bone; and somewhat curiously in the other the lambdoidal suture is filled from one end to the other with small wormian bones, presenting the ledge, which is usual in such circumstances. Both skulls are of large capacity, and indicate good intellectual powers. So far as one can judge from their appearance, their owners must have been alive fifty years ago.”

Thus the Shetlanders’ large head is indicated by his requiring a hat a size larger than the Scotchman, and two or three sizes larger than his brother fisherman on the east coast of Scotland. For the sizes of hats required by Scotland and its fishing villages, I am indebted to Dr Mitchell’s pamphlet on “Blood Relationship in Marriage considered in its influence upon the offspring,” p. 36. Mr Burge’s inquiries also show that the Shetlander’s head is rather shorter and broader in proportion than that of the Scotchman. On the whole, we may conclude that the Shetlanders are decidedly of the Scandinavian type of features and complexion, and I can safely say, if not from personal experience of the people of many Mother districts, from some inquiry, that nowhere can we find in Britain, at all events, a peasantry presenting more beauty of face and form, and more regularity and delicacy of features. They can still, like their ancestors, be known

“By the tall form, blue eye, proportion fair,
The limbs athletic, and the long light hair.”

Enter a church attended by the lower orders in one of our manufacturing towns, after returning from a trip to the Ultima Thule, and you will be struck with the red heads, flat noses, bad figures, and the stolid expression of its female worshippers, as compared with the # graceful figures, lively and intelligent expression, and classic features of the maidens of Shetland. But this leads us into moral and social influences which had better be discussed in another chapter. The fair hair, blue eyes, and clear skin of the Norsemen, both in Scandinavia and Shetland, certainly give some weight to the doctrine that the nanthous complexion is produced by a comparatively cold and damp climate. The influx of Scotch blood which lias taken place during the last three centuries by the immigration of Government officials, traders, and clergymen, has undoubtedly modified and probably improved the race; and, considering the numbers of strangers who during that long period have settled in the country, it seems surprising, at first sight, why they have not assimilated the Shetland more to the Scottish people, especially, as that learned ethnologist, Dr Gustaf Kombst, tells us, that “ in crossing the two shades the darker one (i.e. the Celtic) prevails over the fairer (or the Scandinavian) in complexion, colour of eyes, and hair.” The explanation of this apparent difficulty is, I think, to be found when we consider the kind of “ Scotch ” who came over. Brand, writing in 1701, says, “There be many who have lately come to it (Shetland) from Orkney, Caithness, Sutherland, Buchan, and other places, especially in the north of Scotland.” As is well known the people of these counties and districts are, to a great extent, of Scandinavian origin, and therefore the progeny of them by Shetland marriages would, to a great extent, exhibit the characteristics of the Norsemen. The habits of these immigrants would also very much diminish their offspring in number, for they are described as “Scotch vagabonds;”3 and we can easily imagine that the most respectable and industrious denizens of the north of Scotland, even during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were not likely to choose the Isles of Shetland as a field of immigration. But there were some of the Scotch settlers in the seventeenth century who did not deserve the opprobrious epithet applied in the County Acts to the majority of them, for a few Shetland families at the present day can trace their descent from Covenanting worthies, who sought in these remote islands refuge from the troubles of that stormy period. The Saxon pirates who infested their seas at an early period, and the large number of foreigners from Holland, Hamburgh, Bremen, and other Continental countries and ports, who carried on an extensive commerce with Shetland till the middle of last century, would doubtless, to a slight extent, influence the race, and infuse fresh blood into it; but all these nations being Teutons like the Shetlanders themselves, would not materially alter their physical qualities. Perhaps the tendency observed by all races of men and animals when crossed, for the offspring to return to the parent stock, may account for the permanence of Norse features in Shetland. As an argument for the great preponderance of Norse blood in the Shetland people, the prevailing surnames may be mentioned. The great majority of these are patronymics as Magnus-son or Manson, Ollason, Laurenson, Thomson, Peterson, &c. Until the last generation the surnames, in many parts of the country, changed according to the Norse fashion every generation; and eighty or a hundred years ago this was universally the case. Thus the son of Magnus Johnson would be John Manson, and his daughter Enga Manson or Magnusdaughter. Now, however, the names are fixed, and I know of families who, thinking they have an ugly surname as Bartleson, &c., regret the patronymic system did not cease a generation sooner, when they might have received a more euphonious name as Thomson, Robertson, &c. The patronymic affix of “daughter” to a female name has also ceased. Norse Christian names are also to be met with as Olla and Magnus (male), and Christian, Enga, Osla (not Ursula), and Sweety (female).

In travelling through Shetland, I have been frequently struck with the great difference in the physical character of the people which prevails in the different parishes and islands. On observing the inhabitants of the island of Fetlar, on the north-east, and comparing them with those of Muckle Roe, on the west coast, one would be inclined to declare them as belonging to totally different nations. Thus, we find the men of Fetlar great, almost gigantic, in stature, athletic, broad shouldered, deep chested, powerful, and almost herculean in strength, noble looking, and, in fact, presenting all the physical qualities required to make up a “perfect model of a man,” so that any one of them might be chosen, like “Jupiter Carlyle,” to sit for a statue of Olympian Jove. The men of Muckle Roe are, on the other hand, little, dumpy, frequently bandy-legged, ill-proportioned, have ill-formed features, and are incapable of great or long-continued physical exertion, but handy at light work. What can have produced such a difference in the inhabitants of two islands belonging to the same group, and situated within twenty-five miles of each other? Both are of Norse origin, as evinced by their blue eyes and yellow hair. In both communities there is a slight intermixture of Scotch blood, as shown by the names Gardner and Brown existing in the one island, and Black and Fraser in the other. But here analogies end, and contrasts begin in the circumstances of the two peoples. Fetlar is a comparatively flat, low-lying island, very fertile, and may be said to be exposed on all sides to the ocean, lying at least four miles away from any other island; it is formed on the one side of gneiss and on the other of serpentine. Roe, on the other hand, is formed of granite, is extremely rugged and barren, is precipitous on the west, and only habitable along its eastern and southern shores, which border a fine, large, land-locked bay. At one point a person can walk across to the neighbouring part of the mainland at low tide. The men of the first-mentioned island have always been bold, hardy, deep-sea fishers, earning their livelihood in open boats from forty to fifty miles from land; and thence their hardihood, daring, and nautical skill, have been constantly taxed. At the same time they have been prosperous small farmers, enjoying the comforts of life, and living for a long time, at all events, under good moral influences.

Thus, with these circumstances, the most healthy climate in the world, and no means of dissipation, they have enjoyed all the influences favourable to the development of their physical frames, bodily strength and energy, mental activity and moral purity. But the people of Roe have chiefly subsisted by catching fish in the neighbouring land-locked bay, or acting as menials about the house of their powerful proprietor, who, for many generations, dwelt within a sling-throw of them. Near them, for probably two or three centuries, existed the chief trading booth, where they could readily obtain spirits from the Dutch. Church or school were unknown in the island till twenty years ago, when a humble specimen of the latter institution was set up, and there is no evidence to show that they were in former times exposed to influences calculated to elevate the character. Hence the people of Roe have been exposed to degrading physical and social influences, and if we allow anything for endemic influences, for the slight differences of climate in the two islands, or attach any weight to the doctrine of Boudin that “man is (physically) the expression of the soil on which he lives,” or believe that food has an influence on the bodily character, we cannot have so much difficulty in understanding why the sons of brother Vikings, who ploughed the sea together a thousand years ago, presents such marked contrasts now.

Numerous authorities might be cited to show that the influence of such causes as above specified on man is generally recognised. I shall content myself with two quotations from Waitz, who says—“ The important influence of diet upon the body, and indirectly upon the mind, have never been doubted.” Again, speaking of aliment and mode of life, he says—“By their combined action they produce among men, originally of the same stock, a gradual inequality, both in external and internal characters.” Everywhere over the globe we have well-marked instances of race being altered by climate, habits, and pursuits. Thus, “ the Turks by adopting a life of civilisation in Europe now exhibit, in all essential particulars, the physical character of the European model—said these are particularly apparent in the conformation of the skull; ”while“ those (of the same race) who still inhabit the ancient abodes of the race, and preserve their pastoral nomadic life, present the physiognomy and general characteristics which appear to have belonged to the original Turkomans, and these are decidedly referable to the so-called Mongolian type.” In the same way, the Finns, by civilisation, have become gradually assimilated to the surrounding population ; while their Turanian brethren, the Lapps, by continuing their nomadic habits, have undergone no elevations in physical character. This transformation, but of a retrogade kind, has been observed by an eyewitness amongst the Koranas,—“a tribe of Hottentots, formerly considerably advanced in the improvements which belong to pastoral life, but having been plundered and driven out into the wilderness, they have adopted the habits of the Bushmen, and have become assimilated in every essential particular to that miserable tribe.” Again, the inhabitants of the Malays (Polynesian group of islands), though they are proved by the community of language to be of the same race, present great diversities of formation—some being as the Tahitians and Marquesans, tall, well-made, and vigorous; and others small and feeble, some of a copper-brown colour, others nearly black, another set olive, and others almost white. Still their climate, pursuits, and food, are very similar. Dr Carpenter, while maintaining that all these tribes are from the same stock, ascribes the great differences which now exist amongst them to climatic influence and mode of life. One of the best instances we have of degrading physical and moral influences affecting the bodily conformation of man is to be found amongst les classes dangereuses of London and other large cities, who gradually become prognathous, and otherwise assume the characteristics of the lower orders of the race. In the island of Uyea, situated near the well-known island of Unst, mice do not exist, and when introduced they pine away and die. This remarkable phenomenon must depend on some unknown endemic cause. It is said on good authority to exist in others of the smaller islands besides Uyea. May not some similar endemic influence affect favourably or otherwise human beings, in Fetlar or Muckle Roe, for instance? My argument from the possible difference of climate in these two islands is strengthened by the fact that different climates prevail even in the same town of Brighton.

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